Dr Noel O’Kelly, Clinical Director at Spirit Health image
Dr Noel O’Kelly, Clinical Director at Spirit Health

Dr Noel O’Kelly, Clinical Director at virtual ward provider Spirit Health, explores the process behind delivering NHS virtual wards, including working with clinicians to develop the healthcare pathways, training NHS staff, and how patients are being introduced to the technology.

Virtual wards have played a critical role in the pandemic response, with virtual COVID-19 wards launching across the country to enable patients to monitor and track symptoms at home and remain in contact with their clinician using apps and platforms to log their symptoms.

Alongside protecting patients from the spread of COVID-19, virtual wards have generated substantial financial savings and reduced the number of days patients unnecessarily spend in hospital.

The scale of ambition is clear, with the NHS target being to have 40–50 virtual ward beds per 100,000 population by December 2023, not replacing face-to-face services, but sitting alongside them.

But how can you get the virtual ward ball rolling?

Delivering a virtual ward is a significant task. Ensuring the technology works efficiently and obtains the right patient information is critical.

Spirit Health, for example, is currently preparing to launch and scale virtual wards across 16 healthcare pathways for the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland (LLR) Integrated Care System (ICS) in October, spanning more than 1.1 million patients.

This is no small task, and here are some top tips to help you get started on your virtual ward journey.

Successful alignment with governance frameworks

Communication and compliance between external technology providers and NHS partners are key.

One of the biggest challenges is ensuring the wards are delivered according to the individual healthcare providers governance systems and in line with other regulatory frameworks, such as TPI data sharing and the government escalation pathway.

The organisation of the ‘wrap around’ for virtual wards can be a lengthy process, and, therefore, getting this in order as early as possible will enable more time to get down to the actual virtual ward pathway development. Compliance across data systems is important, not only for ensuring data can be shared to support the smooth running of the virtual ward, but also in protecting patients’ confidential data. When working with external tech providers, compliance must be front and centre for the NHS.

Getting buy-in from your clinicians

In preparing to launch a virtual ward, it is paramount that clinicians are on board with the concept, as they will be largely responsible for helping to develop pathways and for placing patients on a virtual ward. However, there is some uncertainty from clinicians over how virtual wards will work, the role they will play, and concerns relating to workforce more broadly, which can make it a bit trickier to engage with clinicians and get them on board with the concept.

From our experience, this can be effectively resolved through taking the time to fully explain the virtual ward and how it will operate, dedicating the time to train staff, and highlighting the extensive benefits that virtual wards can have – not only for patients, but also for staff who will be able to care for patients more efficiently. Through our work with the LLR ICS, Spirit Health has in a sense become an extension of the LLR team, and we have worked hard to embed ourselves in the ICS to ensure we are on hand to address any concerns from clinicians and other healthcare staff.

Another challenge is that clinicians are very busy people! We need them to help us develop the healthcare pathways to ensure they deliver the right information on patients for the virtual ward to operate successfully, but we are very understanding of the significant pressure clinicians operate under. Therefore, the key to this challenge is flexibility and consideration from the tech provider and working in ways that suit the clinicians best, so that we can achieve the results we need in time for the launch.

Support NHS staff to adopt new tech

In the context of ongoing NHS workforce challenges, the rollout of virtual wards across the country will be seen to have a significant impact on NHS staff workloads – but not by creating more work – rather, they will free up NHS staff time and make it quicker and more efficient to care for patients.

As a virtual ward provider, our job is to ensure staff feel comfortable and confident using the tech on a day-to-day basis. It is also critical that the tech is seen as a support – not a hindrance – to the job of NHS workers. Therefore, delivering high-quality staff training on how to use the platform is a top priority.

Continuing to be present beyond the initial virtual ward launch is one of our biggest tips for virtual ward providers. In order for virtual wards to be a success, and for patients to be assured they are receiving top quality care, they need to be in safe clinical hands. At Spirit Health, our CQC-registered, in-house clinical monitoring teams remain on-hand to support NHS staff with capacity, ongoing training and support beyond the initial launch, to guarantee the success of the virtual ward programme.

Swift and effective patient onboarding

Ensuring patients across the country are confident using the virtual ward technology is absolutely key. As part of the development process for virtual wards, we have been encouraging clinicians to work closely with patients and Spirit Health to understand the technology, and to ask questions in order to address any concerns or reservations they may have.

As part of the introduction process, we will be using educational videos to show patients how our virtual ward platform, CliniTouch Vie, will work and how the patient will operate it. We have found these to be exceptionally useful in helping people to feel more at ease with using technology across our previously launched pilot virtual wards – particularly for older patients who have concerns around their ability to use tech.

Whilst many people believe virtual wards will exclude those of us who are less tech savvy, such as older patients, Spirit Health’s current average age of a user is 67 – whilst our oldest patient is 103!

Virtual ward technology is designed to be patient friendly and is highly intuitive, with the aim to make the platforms as easy as possible for patients of all ages and capabilities to use.

Final words of wisdom

Through my experience of delivering several virtual wards for NHS trusts, I would say that my main tips are to be open to change; flexible in your approach; and committing the time and effort to staff training, clinician engagement, and supporting patients with their concerns around using a virtual ward.

Virtual wards represent a real opportunity to deliver tangible change in the way patients access and receive care – creating a ‘home first’ culture and supporting patients with more consistent dialogue with their healthcare provider.

If you are interested in finding out more about virtual ward delivery, you can access Spirit Health’s free-to-access Virtual Ward toolkit here.

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